The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Word That Moved America

The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Word That Moved America

The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Word That Moved America

The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Word That Moved America


Today it seems extraordinary that a nation the size of the United States could have been so profoundly affected by the minister of a little Baptist church in Montgomery, Alabama. But at a turning point in American history, Martin Luther King, Jr., had an incalculable effect on the fabric of daily life and the laws of the nation. As no other preacher in living memory and no politician since Lincoln, he transposed the themes of love, suffering, deliverance, and justice from the sacred shelter of the pulpit into the arena of public policy. He was the last great religious reformer in America. How the man who always saw himself as "fundamentally a clergyman, a Baptist preacher" crafted his strategic vision and moved a nation to renewal is the subject of this remarkable new book. The Preacher King investigates Martin Luther King Jr.'s, religious development from a precocious "PK" ("preacher's kid") in segregated Atlanta to the most influential American preacher and orator of the twentieth century. To give the most accurate and intimate portrait possible, author Richard Lischer draws almost exclusively on King's unpublished sermons and speeches, as well as tape recordings, personal interviews, and even police surveillance reports. In King's published works, Lischer shows, King and his editors modified and polished his sermons in order to reach as wide an audience as possible. By returning to the raw sources, Lischer recaptures King's real, African-American, preaching voice and, consequently, something of the real King himself. He shows how as the son, the grandson, and the great-grandson of preachers, King early on absorbed the poetic cadences, the traditions, and the power of the pulpit. He traces King's coming of age from his rebellious teenage years (King once wrote that at thirteen he shocked his Sunday School class by "denying the bodily resurrection of Jesus") to his arrival in Montgomery, where he took on the role of "Brother Pastor" to his flock during the year of ministry before he burst into national prominence. Lischer shows that King was as profoundly influenced by his fellow African-American preachers as he was by Gandhi and the philosophers, and tracks King's themes of brotherhood and justice from the set pieces of his weekly sermons to his electrifying mass meeting speeches, demonstrations, and civil addresses. Lischer also reveals a later phase of King's development that few of his biographers or critics have addressed: the prophetic rage with which he condemned American religious and political hypocrisy. During the last three years of his life, Lischer shows, King accused his country of genocide, warned of long hot summers in the ghettos, and called for a radical redistribution of wealth. More than any other book, The Preacher King captures the crucial aspect of the identity of Martin Luther King, Jr. Human, complex, and passionate, here is a preacher who never gave up trying to shape a congregation of people that would be capable of redeeming the moral and political character of the nation.


I began researching this book after one of my students informed me that the sermons she had read by Dr. King for a class assignment were "pretty dry," by which she meant boring. Although not an expert on King or black preaching, I had lived through the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and therefore I remembered what King's voice had meant to the cause of social justice, and I knew that his sermons and speeches as he delivered them were not "dry." Everyone seems to know what I knew, or remembered, then, and many have given testimony to the beauty and power of the spoken word on King's lips. But few have tried to give a rational account of King's prowess as a speaker and preacher of the gospel.

It is now possible to attempt such a task because the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change has made the audiotapes and transcripts of King's sermons available to scholars. These, along with materials I have gathered from churches and archives around the country, have provided the basis for a reliable portrait of King the preacher and orator. Perhaps a clearer picture will emerge when the King estate grants further access to his earliest and as yet untranscribed sermons and speeches.

In my account of the preacher King I have followed the audiotapes and transcripts of the sermons, allowing the tapes to "correct" mistakes in transcription. Many of the transcripts lack tapes; from these I have corrected only the typist's most obvious errors. For reasons of concision, I have occasionally paraphrased the transcripts. The essence of King's voice, however, is nowhere obscured.

The style of some parts of the sermons and speeches suggests that they exercised a poetic or musical effect on their audience. Where repetition, alliteration, and other rhetorical clues point to this effect, I have transcribed the audiotapes in poetic form. Where a transcript of the sermon already exists, I have sometimes recast portions of it as poetry.

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